Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, left, jokes with Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who will be feted tonight. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — Derek Jeter has had a lot of great moments and memories playing and watching baseball in Detroit, especially at old Tiger Stadium where he watched games with his father when he was a young boy growing up in Kalamazoo.
But the first memory is a painful one. It happened in 1995, a year he played in 15 games with the Yankees.
“We were coming here (to Detroit) on a road trip,” he said, speaking to a large group of media before the game. “That day me and Mo (Mariano Rivera) got sent down. I had everything packed and ready to come to Detroit. I had my friends and family coming and then we got demoted to Triple A.
“I had a lot of friends and family that had to change plans.”
Jeter jokingly blamed Rivera, who was a fledgling, young starting pitcher at the time.
“Mo gave it up that last game (before the trip),” Jeter said. “He gave it up and we were sent down. I was guilty by association.”
Jeter, who will retire after the season and is making his final visit to Detroit, had played 142 games against the Tigers before Tuesday, hitting .325 with 12 home runs, 74 RBIs, 113 runs and an .843 OPS. He did the majority of that damage in New York.
“I liked old Tiger Stadium because right field had an overhang,” Jeter said. “You could hit balls that appeared to be outs and they’d end up as a home run. It was fun to play in old Tiger Stadium.”
Jeter played 22 games in the old yard from 1996-99 and hit .360 with two homers, 11 RBIs and a .975 OPS. He’s played 46 games at Comerica, hitting .260 with four home runs, 23 RBIs and a .670 OPS.
“This place (Comerica) is a lot bigger and better,” he said.
Jeter was born in New Jersey, and despite living in Kalamazoo from the age of 4 through 18, he never became a fan of any of the Detroit sports teams.
“My dad was a big Tigers fan and Lions fan,” he said. “But because I was born in Jersey, I always leaned toward the Yankees. ... Also because I had to root against my dad I steered toward the New York teams.”
He was and remains a big fan of the University of Michigan, a relationship that stems from being recruited to the school by former Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, who was coaching the baseball program in the early 1990s.
“Coach Freehan and I had a great relationship, him and Ace Adams who was a recruiter for them,” Jeter said. “I considered coming there. I wanted to go there and I ended up going to school there (for one semester) during the offseason.”
So what was it that sold him on the Maize and Blue? The program, the academics, the winged helmets? Nah.
“When I really fell in love with Michigan was when I went on a recruiting trip,” he said. “I went on trips to Michigan, Notre Dame and Miami and I had a couple other set up. I went to a football game and the guys took me out after and I saw a couple of parties. I was sold on the campus at the University of Michigan — plus I had some friends who were going there.”
Once he was drafted by the Yankees, though, he put his collegiate dreams on hold.
“You weigh the pros and cons and the opportunities,” he said. “I think I made the right decision.”
With retirement looming, Jeter was asked if he might finish what he started at the University of Michigan?
“Yeah,” he laughed. “You’ve seen that movie ‘Back to School’ with Rodney Dangerfield. That’d be me right there.”
The Tigers will honor Jeter in a ceremony before today’s game and, like every other stadium he has visited for the last time this season, he will be showered with gifts.
“Yeah, maybe I will give him a signed picture of him getting his 3,000th hit off me,” Tigers pitcher David Price joked. “He probably doesn’t want gifts. He just wants to play the game and he wants to focus in on what the Yankees are trying to do. That’s just his demeanor. He wants to downplay everything and he wants it to be about the team.”
Price is right about that. Jeter chafes when someone calls it his “farewell tour.”
“It’s not a farewell tour,” he said. “It’s our last season, that’s a better way to put it. You say tour and it’s like I’m just going around shaking hands and kissing babies. We’re still trying to win.”
Jeter admits, though, he is losing the battle against trying to keep the focus off the finish line.
“It’s difficult because every time I go to a stadium for the last time people are talking about it,” he said. “But I am trying to take it day to day and I’ll continue to do that. But it is getting more difficult.”
Jeter said he hasn’t thought much about what he’ll do after he retires.
“I don’t want to make plans,” he said. “That’s the key. I’ve been on a schedule pretty much my entire life. I don’t want to make plans.”
He said he couldn’t see himself coaching or managing, but he has often hinted that he would like to be part of an ownership group. He also said he would maintain his foundation and his close ties with Kalamazoo.
“I was born in Jersey but I have always told people I am from Michigan,” he said. “And Kalamazoo, that’s where I grew up and it’s very important to me. I am sure when I retire I will have more time to spend there and I will be going back and forth.”